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The Piano Lesson

Photos by Pamela Springsteen(left) and James Minchen

It’s not as though aggressive rock & roll can’t be squeezed out of a piano, from the boogie-woogie panic of Jerry Lee Lewis (who set his ax on fire long before Hendrix) to the treated hammering of John Cale. In spite of this perfectly unrespectable pedigree, pop music more often trades on the instrument’s place in more polite settings: the concert hall, the cocktail lounge, and even the family parlor in the decades before phonographs and radios. A rocker alone at the piano usually signifies some combination of sophistication, contemplativeness and sentimentality, from “Imagine” on down to Ben Folds. Want to come on sensitive, or just find some chords you can’t reach on a guitar fretboard? Head for the eighty-eight.

The Randy Newman Songbook and Elvis Costello’s North resonate with these associations, though in different registers. In some ways, it’s unfair to compare them: Newman’s album comprises new, unaccompanied performances of material from the last 35 years, while Costello’s consists of 11 new songs, written at the keyboard but orchestrated to showcase his newfound compositional skills. But both have the rich (in both senses) sound of a concert grand at their core — no cathouse crackerboxes for these upscale artists.

Which brings us to another link. Appearing on “prestige” imprints of their respective multinationals, both albums are presented as something more than disposable pop product. (And lucky for them, as Costello and Newman are now of an age and appearance that makes teen-idolhood unlikely.) The Songbook project (two more volumes are planned) is Newman’s first for Nonesuch, Time-Warner’s catchall for high-/low-culture straddlers from Laurie Anderson to Wilco. North bears the “Yellow Label” of Deutsche Grammophon. (Roll over, Beethoven . . .) This makes more sense if you know that the venerable classical label and Island/Def Jam, Costello’s present home, are both tentacles of Universal Music Group.

You see? The recording industry isn’t such a dragon. It only sues 12-year-olds for downloading nursery rhymes so it can do what it really wants to do, which is bring you these works of Serious (and likely unprofitable) Art. Yes, and everyone at Mobil loved Don Giovanni.

Randy Newman has built a career on spitting such contradictions right back at us. Following an untitled instrumental, Songbook shows us how seriously he takes this retrospective business with the mock-egotistical “Lonely at the Top,” written well before his real success as a performer. After this, he gets down to business, sifting through material familiar (“You Can Leave Your Hat On”) and obscure (“Let Me Go,” from a 1972 movie). The vocal performances are as expressively mealy as ever; the piano work is spot-on but rarely flashy. Mitchell Froom’s production is so intimate that you can hear the sustain pedal pumping during the selections from Newman’s film scores (Avalon, Ragtime).

Newman has recorded his share of contemporary-sounding pop-rock (“Short People” and “I Love L.A.,” neither found here). But his musical reputation rests on his command of styles that hark back to an earlier, allegedly simpler America, as though the spirits of George M. Cohan and Stephen Foster had taken over the body of a Louisiana-born, Hollywood-bred secular Jew. His masterstroke has been to use the good-old-days connotations of ragtime and sentimental balladry to soften us up for the lyrical sucker punch. Even the lovely “Marie,” not so distant from Cohan’s “Mary (It’s a Grand Old Name),” admits something the Yankee Doodle Dandy never would: “I’m drunk right now baby/But I’ve got to be/Or I couldn’t tell you/What you mean to me.”

The barbs are more toxic when Newman turns to social and political themes. Those good old days? Not so good, for lots of people: the murdered child in “Germany Before the War,” the “wogs” enticed into the slave ship in “Sail Away,” and just about everybody on either side of the color line in the post-Reconstruction South. “Rednecks,” first heard on the 1974 concept album Good Old Boys (recently named by the Skynyrd-revivifying Drive-By Truckers as a key influence), is still unsettling nearly 30 years later. After seeing Georgia governor Lester Maddox kicked around on the Dick Cavett show, Newman’s bigot pens a warts-and-all anthem to Dixie, complete with liberal — or illiberal — use of the N-word, that devolves into a list of Northern cities where African-Americans are allegedly better off. “He’s free to be put in a cage in Harlem in New York City/Free to be put in a cage on the south side of Chicago . . . They’re gatherin’ ’em up for miles around/Keeping the niggers down,” he concludes, while a rolling Scott Joplin piano riff blithely pumps away. Bold even for Newman, “Rednecks” still has the power to shock, and to force listeners to examine their own views and actions. It shatters the gentility of the “great man and his songs” setup like Gilbert Gottfried at a Friars’ Club roast.

Strong as these new performances are, longtime admirers may not actually need this album. Still, it’s worth hearing for the connections drawn between older songs and those from 1999’s Bad Love. “The World Isn’t Fair” finds the singer in his “mansion on the hill,” telling Karl Marx’s ghost how pleased he is that capital has prevailed: “The rich get richer/and the poor you don’t ever have to see/It would depress us, Karl.” As for preserving this arrangement, there’s a suggestion in the next song, 1972’s “Political Science”: “They all hate us anyhow/So let’s drop the big one now.” As Newman has written elsewhere, that song is “never out of date, unfortunately.” Songbook would be a victory lap if it gave us anything to cheer about.

 

North, by contrast, is almost entirely apolitical, ahistorical and asocial. Hermetically sealed with a kiss, it excludes all non-romantic concerns. That’s fine — no one’s confiscating your copy of “Oliver’s Army” or “Shipbuilding.” The course of love isn’t smooth throughout these songs, but the power struggles and recriminations that mark Costello’s best-known lyrics are largely absent. Take “Let Me Tell You About Her,” in which he doesn’t: “Gentlemen don’t speak of it, and this one never will.” Fairly gallant, from someone who long ago admitted stirring up trouble in his personal life to generate raw material for songs.

This could be the first Elvis Costello album that is richer musically than lyrically. North isn’t exactly an attempt to “go legit” — Deutsche Grammophon aside — but it’s too ambitious to work as adult-contemporary wallpaper. Except for some overripe introductions, Costello uses the orchestral palette with restraint, framing a small combo of ex-Attraction Steve Nieve, jazz drummer Peter Erskine and various bassists. The closest comparison may be to the misty, muted settings Alex Stordahl wove for Sinatra at his post-Dorsey crooniest.

Next to the vernacular ease of Newman’s melodies, Costello’s are wildly convoluted, backed with as many tricky harmonic shifts as Armed Forces had puns. The Great American Songbook is in the mix, but so are Schubert, Sondheim and Joni Mitchell. When these songs falter, it’s less often the fault of the tunes or the words themselves than the way they’re combined. Strained diction (“Wits may sharpen up/their cuts and clever flays”) and rhymes that don’t merit being called “off” (“fracture”/“statue”?) might whip by unnoticeably at Get Happy! tempos, but in a carefully sung ballad they’re harder to ignore.

When everything clicks, however, North isn’t just respectable, it’s moving. “Fallen,” a thematic cousin to Vernon Duke’s “Autumn Leaves,” rambles through “the amber and the burnished gold” with a well-placed bloom of strings after the bridge. The closing “In the Mood Again,” just Costello at the piano and an atmospheric vibraphone, shoots down several of the above generalizations. Formally, it’s as tight as any Broadway warhorse, and its Manhattan setting and cautious optimism offer the album’s sole hint that the world contains more than two people. Think Bruce’s The Rising filtered though the soundtrack of When Harry Met Sally.

“Someone Took the Words Away,” fittingly, has the disc’s best purely instrumental passage, an inventive sax solo couched in strings, à la some high-toned Norman Granz production. Without checking the credits, I’d never have guessed the player: Lennie Tristano sideman and cool-jazz icon Lee Konitz. There’s a whiff of cultural striving about some of Costello’s recent teamings, notably his iffy album with soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, though there’s no doubting his respect for the musicians he works with. But the Konitz solo is no look-who-I-know (or who-I-can-afford) cameo; it’s a generous place in the spotlight for an underappreciated master. Now that’s class.


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